The Social Facts Have Changed
The past decade has seen tremendous shifts in immigration, globalization, and technological specialization that have contributed to what some have called the Age of Fracture. But as Joseph Bottum has suggested, “the single most significant fact over the past few decades in America—the great explanatory event from which follows nearly everything in our social and political history—is the crumbling of the Mainline [Protestant] churches as central institutions in our national experience.” Whatever one thinks of mainline Protestantism today, Bottum is right that it once provided the sociological and institutional framework that sustained the Protestant culture. That framework no longer exists. In its absence, the deep and accelerating cultural trends toward individualism and autonomy have continued to erode trust in social institutions—business, government, church, and even the family. And neither evangelicalism nor Roman Catholicism nor secularism has been able to fill the vacuum left by the shrinking of the Protestant mainline.
This new cultural reality raises some anxieties, but it also presents many of us with an opportunity to rediscover Christian witness in a world that we do not control. The dominant Protestant culture enabled some Christians in this country to forget, as the book of Hebrews proclaims, that here we have no abiding city. While we are called to love our neighbors and to maintain what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence,” no human society can be identified with the kingdom of God. Christians profess that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), which means that we are never quite at home.
We can also learn from the biblical witness how to engage in the world around us. The book of Jeremiah tells the story of God using the prophet to instruct the Jews in Babylon not to hate or ignore the pagan city, but to become long-term residents, to exercise good will toward it through prayer, and to seek its peace and prosperity. They were to build up the social fabric for their common well-being (“if [Babylon] prospers, you too will prosper” [Jer. 29:7]). They were to be known as a people who served their neighbors and their city. At the same time, God’s people were not to place their future hopes in social and economic improvement. They were to love and serve their earthly city, but they were not to forget that God would some day judge that city for its evil and injustice. It was only in God that believers could be sure of a “hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11). In this hope, instead of merely co-existing with the Babylonians, gnawed by memories of former cultural acceptance, the Jews in Babylon were to strive for the good of their city, the growth of the people of God, and their resulting testimony to the glory of God. Like the Jews in Babylon living in a foreign land, Christians are—and always have been—“resident aliens” called to love our neighbors with deeds of service so that those around us will “see [our] good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV).
To live as resident aliens entails a certain vulnerability, but it does not always mean persecution. Claims that American Christians today are facing persecution sound tone-deaf not only to secular progressives but also to many non-white religious believers who have long been actual minorities. That isn’t to say that demographics aren’t changing, or that Christians in the United States don’t face legal abuses and miscarriages of justice. But it is a caution about the use of language and a posture of the heart.